Does Repeated Suicide Assessment Give Salience to Suicidal Behavior?

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Anecdotally, I avoid situations in which I am assessed for suicidality.  It’s intrusive, distressing, and the assessment isn’t used to provide relief from the distress.  For me, it’s a well known risk:harm without any benefit.

“Generally speaking, there is no history of providing psychiatric treatment in the emergency room setting,” says Elizabeth Wharff, director of the Emergency Psychiatry Service at Children’s Hospital Boston. “Since the late 1990s, we have seen a significant increase in the number of cases where an adolescent comes to our emergency room with suicidality and needs inpatient care, but there are no available psychiatric beds anywhere in the area.”

Given that the highest known demographic risk for suicide is that of previous suicide attempt, a couple of studies seem to lead to the notion that the current standard of practice of repeated and frequent assessment of suicidality without treatment to reduce the underlying distressors may actually be contributing to the development of suicidal behavior.

In the first study, demographics of suicide risk after the first hospitalization for a mental illness was explored.

Patients with any major psychiatric disorder are at significant risk for suicide after their first hospital visit, according to new research.
~snip~
Dr. Caine noted that although rates of suicide were less than what other researchers have estimated in the past, they were still quite substantial.

“I think this study really teaches us that all those prior results were in the right direction, but we’re now seeing much more clearly what the proper magnitude is, and what the burden of suicide is.”

“You can also clearly see that the suicide risk continues to climb over years. Certainly there’s a steep climb in the first year after hospitalization, but it continues to climb. So, this isn’t something you think about just the first day or week or month. This is something you think about for years,” he concluded.

It would be reasonable to think that hospitalized patients would have been frequently assessed for suicidality and behavior without receiving any treatment to reduce distressors other than masking symptoms with psychotropic medications.  The overall hospital experience is so antitherapeutic and noxious that overwhelmingly, patients avoid rehospitalizations. But they may leave with heightened acclimation to suicidality by way of the concept discussed in the following study.

The second study deals with understanding mortality salience:

Why did the approval ratings of President George W. Bush— who was perceived as indecisive before September 11, 2001—soar over 90 percent after the terrorist attacks? Because Americans were acutely aware of their own deaths. That is one lesson from the psychological literature on “mortality salience” reviewed in a new article called “The Politics of Mortal Terror.”
~snip~
The fear people felt after 9/11 was real, but it also made them ripe for psychological manipulation, experts say. “We all know that fear tactics have been used by politicians for years to sway votes,” says Cohen. Now psychological research offers insight into the chillingly named “terror management.”

The authors cite studies showing that awareness of mortality tends to make people feel more positive toward heroic, charismatic figures and more punitive toward wrongdoers.
~snip~
Awareness of danger and death can bias even peaceful people toward war or aggression. Iranian students in a control condition preferred the statement of a person preaching understanding and the value of human life over a jihadist call to suicide bombing. But primed to think about death, they grew more positive toward the bomber. Some even said that they might consider becoming a martyr.

As time goes by and the memory of danger and death grows fainter, however, “morality salience” tends to polarize people politically, leading them to cling to their own beliefs and demonize others who hold opposing beliefs—seeing in them the cause of their own endangerment.

Isn’t that interesting! If thinking about mortality and death can induce salience, that would seem to be generalizable to suicidality outside of martyrdom.

In Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, he speaks to the idea that people get acclimated to the idea of suicide.  Frequent assessments of suicidality delve into all of the mechanics of committing suicide:  does the person have a plan, if so, describe it in detail, how will they access the supplies and resources necessary to carry out the plan, where will they do it, will they leave a note, do they have reasons for not doing it, etc.  Even when people deny any and all of these aspects, bringing them up over and over again (let’s call it externally applied rumination) promotes acclimation to the idea of suicide behavior, if not also reinforcing the suicidality (perceived burdensomness and thwarted belongingness). In other words, the assessments serve as mental rehearsing or practice without any treatment whatsoever outside of direct observation (not a treatment), incarceration/involuntary hospitalization (doesn’t treat anything, and increases distress), and removal of the stated intended means (TSA and box cutters, leading to shoe bombers, then underwear, then turban bombs – a moving target, NOT a treatment for suicidality).

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Won’t You Come In and Set A Spell?

I’d like to invite one and all who think about dying, wanting to die, plan your own death, attempt(ed) to die, study these thoughts, beliefs and behaviors or care for or about those who do, to help me in my exploration of alleviating distressors “upstream” from suicidality.

It occurred to me that survivors of suicide are usually described as family and friends of those who died by self inflicted death.  But what about those of us who remained alive after our attempts?  I haven’t found a term for that. Isn’t that interesting?

And what about those of us who find no relief in having remained alive after suicidality?  Or who don’t find relief from suicidality?

Perhaps there is belongingness and worthiness to be found in helping those who are navigating – mostly alone – these very rocky shoals.  Maybe bringing your wisdom, experience and perceptions in how to regain thwarted belongingness and regaining a real and abiding sense of purpose and meaning to someone who is suffering will help you to acquire the same attributes.

I was thinking about the study out today that demonstrates a deep and broad lack of trust by people with depression of their physicians. Then I thought about the known problem of medical students’ reluctance to seek help for mental illness.  I think there may be a lot of overlap in these two studies in the following areas:

There is fear of the negative consequences of reporting symptoms of mental illness – stigma, loss of career, loss of income, loss of health insurance, loss of healthcare (after a psych diagnosis, the quality of healthcare goes down significantly and dramatically as symptoms are chalked up to psychosomaticism and preventive healthcare doesn’t include aggressive care for psychotropic medication adverse effects),loss of personal relationships, loss of home, loss of social standing, loss of social roles, loss of self worth.  There is also the fear of coercion in accepting treatment.  And there is fear of undesirable effects of treatment.

But in admitting suicidality, there is a real danger of losing one’s civil rights, of being detained, incarcerated and treated against one’s will, of being publicly humiliated and shamed, and worst, of being intrusively assessed and evaluated with no care which alleviates intolerable distress.  Every single time I tried to bring up suicidality and how to deal with it, the treater instantly launched into the “dangerousness” assessment.  I eventually learned to clam up immediately and not to bring up suicidality again.

Is it any wonder that we scratch our heads and can’t figure out why people attempt suicide then?  It’s really because no one wants to know the lived experience – the phenomena – of suicidality.

The psychological autopsies are largely stupid, in my view.  There are living, breathing, distressed people who are more than willing to explain if only someone was there to be open enough (and not terrified) to listen and to help work through the distress.

I think that “someone” is those of us who experience suicidality. We may be our own best resource.

So if this speaks to you, consider yourself welcome.  Bring your best – critical thought, analysis, resources, references, support – and help to build ways to lower distress, prevent it in the first place, and find some relief for yourself.

 

What’s therapeutic about that?

The environment about where people are assessed and treated when experiencing a crisis of distress is critical.  Two bloggers recently addressed how much of a difference in help and harm leading to very different outcomes the physical treatment environment made here and here.

A recent post on the Bipolar Advantage blog discusses how to better help people during mental health crises, and proposes that “much of the hostility that [people who are part of the anti-psychiatry movement] have comes from bad experiences when in crisis.” I would absolutely agree.

When John had to enter the hospital a second time two weeks after his first, week-long stay, it was a real struggle to convince him to go because his first experience in the hospital had been such a negative one. I, on the other hand, have only gratitude for the people who helped me during my hospital stay.

It seems to me that mental hospitals could learn a lot about how to handle mental crises from the way general hospitals handle physical emergencies.

Many of the examples included actions by physicians and nurses that escalated and increasingly distressed patients already critically distressed.  In a comment on the Bipolar Advantage post, I summarized the desires of commenters in designing a helpful environment:

  Essential needs:

Dignity protected
Respectful
Family/significant supporters’ unrestricted presence
Advocate present
Comforting
Reassuring
Coaching
Partnering
Truthful and transparent information
Autonomy preserved
Planning for post-crisis self-management
Safe medication administration (right drug, right dose, right route,  right time, affordable, accessible, acceptable)
Tools for successful disease management and healthy living provided

Environment:

Medically therapeutic
Eliminate law enforcement/incarceration/containment aspects
Clear written rules – same as hotel room/gym/spa rules of conduct –         NOT  punitive/control/power-based

Health:

Healthful foods served appealingly: open kitchen
Privacy for rest and sleep
Ability to get sun, green space/nature and fresh air as desired
Meeting rooms and lounges for care, socialization, quiet activities (meditation/exercise/reading/contemplation) and care planning
Clean, attractive and non-odiferous patient care areas

That doesn’t look like to much to ask. In fact, it looks like the run of the mill hospital quality standards for every other service except psychiatry.